U.S. reduces dependence on foreign cobalt

Cobalt, a precious metal that has all but disappeared from production in the United States, is on the verge of a big American comeback.

After years of clearing one bureaucratic hurdle after another, Formation Minerals, Inc., a Canadian mining company, is moving ahead with plans to open a cobalt mine in east central Idaho, about 40 miles west of Salmon. When the mine opens for business in late summer of 2011, it will produce about 1,500 tons of high-purity cobalt metal per year.  The mine, dubbed the Idaho Cobalt Project, is expected to be in operation for at least ten years.

Cobalt is an essential metal in modern society and is used in a wide variety of applications, including lithium-ion batteries, micro-electronics, jet engines, and battlefield tank navigation systems. It is considered a strategic commodity by the U.S. government, and the European Union lists cobalt among the 14 “critical” raw materials due to its risk of supply disruptions and its integral role in modern economies.

The U.S. consumes about 60 percent of the world’s high-quality cobalt, but it currently must rely almost exclusively on foreign sources – Russia, Canada, and Australia – for its supply. Once in operation, however, the mine’s output will be the equivalent to 3.3 percent of the entire global cobalt production.

Because it is located deep inside the Salmon-Challis National Forest, the project was subjected to a tedious permitting process that included the obligatory and time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement.  As with all mining projects, one of the biggest concerns is how to handle wastewater. Formation Metals (formerly known as Formation Capital) plans to treat the wastewater to drinking water standards and has developed elaborate procedures to prevent the drainage of acid runoff or heavy metals into nearby Blacktail Creek. “The wastewater will be better than a bottle of San Pellegrino,” Mari-Ann Green, CEO of Formation Metals, told Land Letter (Aug. 27).

Once in operation, the Idaho Cobalt Project will employ 157 people in the Salmon area plus an addition 39 in northern Idaho. With an annual payroll of about $9.5 million, the mine will have a significant impact on the local economy. The mine should also generate $8 million in revenues for Salmon and Lemhi Counties.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.